How Hassan Whiteside’s fresh start with the Utah Jazz became a perfect fit
During a roller-coaster career, which included a stretch with Miami that netted him a max contract, Jazz big man has found peace — and a role he accepts — for a team that accepts him as he is
On Nov. 6 the Utah Jazz were in a tight battle against the Miami Heat. There wasn’t a ton of time left in a game between two teams that, at that point, only had one loss on the season to each of their names. When it came time to put in a closing lineup, Jazz coach Quin Snyder went with one around the center who had been playing best that night: Hassan Whiteside.
For years there hasn’t even been a question about what center would be in a closing lineup for the Jazz. The defensive drop-off from Rudy Gobert to the next man on the roster has been vast, and understandably so.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year rarely has a night when he isn’t deserving of being on the floor but on that night in Miami, Gobert was just off.
“That’s a hard thing for a player at times,” Snyder said. “But it’s absolutely the right thing. Everybody wants to play, but Hassan came in and gave us really good minutes.”
In the past, even if Gobert is having an off night, he’s still been the better option. That’s not to say that now that Whiteside is on the Jazz roster that Gobert is in danger of losing any minutes or his standing on the team. That’s not the case at all. But on the rare (and I mean very rare) occasion that Gobert is struggling, the Jazz have a weapon in their arsenal that has been more than a pleasant surprise.
Among bench players who have played in at least eight games this season, Whiteside is top-10 in offensive, defensive and net-rating, and through 10 games Whiteside was averaging 7.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. But it’s not just the production and the numbers from Whiteside that have buoyed the Jazz this season. There’s a lot more than meets the eye.
The journey to Utah
Whiteside was the 33rd overall pick in the 2010 draft, selected by the Sacramento Kings, but over his first two seasons, he played in just 19 games. In his rookie season he missed extended time after undergoing knee surgery. The following year he spent most of his time in the D League and was eventually waived by the Kings.
He spent more time in the D League before heading overseas to play in Lebanon and China.
In 2014 he returned to the states to try to break back into the league, and after a short stint on the Memphis Grizzlies’ D-League roster, Whiteside was waived and signed with the Heat. It took Whiteside playing in just 14 games with the Heat before he became the team’s starting center.
Whiteside led the NBA in blocks through the next season (2015-16), was named to the All-Defensive Second Team, recorded multiple point-rebound-block triple-doubles and finished third in DPOY voting.
That year also saw Whiteside end up in multiple on-court altercations, as his temper began to show. Then, when the playoffs came, Whiteside played through knee injuries in the first round but was sidelined with a knee injury during the Heat’s second-round series against the Toronto Raptors.
“He had a great first-round series against Charlotte and I think he was poised to continue on that path,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That (Toronto) series ended up going seven games, not that I still think about this every single, you know. But I think he would have really had an impact in that series. And then who knows, we advanced to the Eastern Conference finals and then storylines change. Then that second half of the next year 2016-17, it was some of the best basketball, winning basketball that he played for us.”
Prior to the start of the 2016-17 season, the Heat signed Whiteside to a four-year $98 million max deal. Whiteside led the league in rebounding that season and although the Heat narrowly missed out on the playoffs, finishing ninth in the East’s standings, it seemed like the Heat had everything they needed in a center.
But the next two seasons were turbulent at best.
“I think I’ve always been a good teammate. But it’s different when you’re winning.” — Utah Jazz center Hassan Whiteside
There’s a phrase that fans of the NBA and those who are around the NBA use to describe what Whiteside brings to a team. It’s referred to as “the Hassan Whiteside experience.” When people use that phrase, it’s not exactly the most flattering thing. It’s used to encapsulate the dichotomy of what Whiteside brings to the table. Some nights he can be very good — engaged, competitive, physical, dominating. Some nights he’s not so good — slow defensively, sets bad screens, doesn’t really seem to care.
Back in 2018, when Whiteside was Miami Heat teammates with Dwyane Wade, now a Jazz minority owner, Wade described the Whiteside experience as being the difference between when Whiteside puts his mind to something and when he doesn’t.
“When he’s engaged and into it and wants to do what Hassan does, he’s one of the most dominant centers in our game,” Wade said. “But there’s some nights as players where you just go through the motions. And that’s all of us as players. When he puts his mind to the game and he wants to go out and dominate, it’s hard for people to go to the levels that a big guy like that can go to.”
Until Whiteside had started his NBA career, he was always the biggest, most important person on the teams for which he played. Mistakes made him angry and frustrated, not being relied upon frustrated him and there wasn’t much that he could do about what was happening.
Whiteside dealt with injuries that had him sidelined for large chunks of the season through the 2017-18 campaign and as other players on the roster started to rise up the ranks, Whiteside’s frustration grew.
Whiteside was fined by the Heat in 2018 when he went on a profanity-laced rant about not getting the playing time he wanted. He questioned his future with the team, and clearly there were some within the organization who were questioning that future as well. After one more up-and-down season with the Heat, Whiteside was traded to the Portland Trial Blazers, who were in desperate need of some help at center, where injuries had depleted their roster.
Whiteside was a fine fill-in for the Trail Blazers, but his days there were numbered. The impending return of Jusuf Nurkic meant Portland wouldn’t be keeping Whiteside around long-term. Then the Kings came calling again.
After four years of making more than $20 million a year, Whiteside signed a minimum deal with the Kings. Financial proof that his glory days as a max player were over and what he’d been able to build in Miami was deteriorating.
Again he dealt with injuries, he missed time after testing positive for COVID-19, and the Kings continued to rely on developing their younger players. Whiteside was an afterthought and when he did play, people were reminded that there were going to be good nights and bad ones. The Hassan Whiteside experience.
Then Utah reached out.
It didn’t hurt that Wade, who Whiteside respects and cares for deeply, was now a part owner of the team. It also didn’t hurt that Mike Conley, a guy who Whiteside has always put on a pedestal and who Whiteside met when he played preseason ball with the Grizzlies in 2014, was with the Jazz. What sealed the deal was twofold: Whiteside has always wanted to play for Quin Snyder, and Whiteside wants to win, no matter what it takes.
A new start with the Jazz
Through the preseason many wondered if the Jazz would be getting the Whiteside that they’ve come to expect over the last few years. The player that you couldn’t really trust to be consistent. Many wondered, given his vocal frustrations in the past, whether he’d be willing to accept a role as a backup to Gobert, a player he had feuded with in the past and who went on to win that coveted DPOY three times. On a minimum deal, coming off the bench, would Whiteside give the Jazz what they need?
While many were wondering, the Jazz were learning that Whiteside’s true nature is not as an angry and frustrated try-hard. Instead they saw a joyful and pleasant guy, willing to put in a lot of work.
“Hassan is probably misread by some people,” Spoelstra said. “He’s a funny guy; he’s a good guy to have around. He likes to have fun, but he competes.”
Donovan Mitchell went into training camp ready to give Whiteside a chance, knowing that the outside perception of Whiteside was probably not the full picture. Since then, Mitchell and the rest of the Jazz players have only had praise for Whiteside. And likewise, Whiteside has been shocked and surprised and how much he feels like he’s a part of something.
The Jazz weren’t even through with their preseason slate before Whiteside was willing to say that this team is unlike any other he’s been a part of. While nearly every team in the NBA tries to brand itself as the most bonded or the team with the best culture and identity, Whiteside said that’s often more for show than it is real behind the scenes.
“It’s so cool how close this team is, I haven’t been on a team that’s this close,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘Hey we’re close team, hey we do this together.’ Nah. This is really like a close-knit group. It’s great. I love it.”
Whiteside said that in the past he feels like his teammates have been work friends more than anything. They see each other in the gym, at work. But he was surprised that when he got to Utah, he was immediately on multiple group texts with people asking what he was doing after practice, or what his dinner plans were. The Jazz all play video games together, and people actually hang out outside of work.
Also, after a year of playing on a team with a bunch of very young players in Sacramento, Whiteside was now on a team with veterans who he could relate to. And as far as his role on the team, that was all above board and explained before he even inked his contract.
Whiteside knew that he wouldn’t be getting the kind of playing time with the Jazz that he had become accustomed to through the majority of his career. He knew that he was going to a place where he would be coming off the bench, behind Gobert. He knew he wouldn’t be getting as many post touches as he had in other systems. That’s not the way the Jazz play basketball, so his nights of putting up 20-point, 20-rebound games were likely not going resurface in Utah.
But he also knew that he’d be joining the team that had just been the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference the previous season. He knew that he would be able to back up Gobert and prevent the kind of defensive drop-off that there had been in recent years. He knew that if he joined the Jazz, he would be going back to the playoffs — he’d have a chance to win.
Interestingly enough, everything that led to Whiteside ending up with the Jazz, has fueled him, and up to this point, he’s exceeded expectations even to the point of that Saturday night in Miami, against his former team, when he was playing well enough to earn him closing minutes in a hard-fought game.
It’s true that Whiteside is no longer an offensive focal point, and he’s still getting use to the Jazz’s system and Snyder’s playbook, which Whiteside described as being “the size of a dictionary.” But Whiteside is committed to learning and making sure that he’s making the right impact and good decisions during his minutes.
He’s only been with the Jazz a short time, but the players’ willingness to spend time with each other and connect off the court has made Whiteside want to play hard for them. And the Jazz’s drive and want to advance in the playoffs is pushing Whiteside too.
“I think I’ve always been a good teammate,” he said. “But it’s different when you’re winning.”
Snyder’s upfront conversations with Whiteside during free agency and after he signed with the Jazz along with Snyder’s commitment to preparing as thoroughly as Whiteside has ever seen anyone prepare for a season or a game, only confirmed what Whiteside had thought for years.
“I thought he was the best coach in the league before I even got here,” he said. “He’s one of the biggest reasons I came here.”
For all of the reasons that Whiteside is with the Jazz and for many more reasons that are probably going unsaid, Whiteside’s personality, his toughness and his competitive spirit are the things that probably have stood out the most for the Jazz.
Their reserve center brings a level of physicality to their bench that they haven’t had for a while, his willingness to fight for his teammates, to stand up to the competition, to cheer, to complain, to make the team laugh even in difficult situations, all of the intangible traits that don’t get recorded in a box score are the reasons that the Jazz have embraced him so much.
Emotions really seem to be a driving force for Whiteside. When he first got to Miami, he was fighting for a spot in the league and had a chip on his shoulder. He made history as the first NBA player to go from being on minimum contract one season to being a max-contract player the next season. He was fighting every day to prove that he was worth it.
When he started to realize that he wasn’t going to be that player for the Heat anymore, those emotions got the better of him.
With the Jazz, there are no questions about his place on this team or his role within it. Any frustration or anger that Whiteside has these days can be used on the court and in the game or to fire up his teammates.
“Anytime you have a player that plays with passion, I mean that’s indicative of the fact that he cares and that emotion and that energy can feed a team,” Snyder said. “Anytime you add emotion to competitiveness, that’s rocket fuel.”
Whiteside signed a one-year veteran minimum deal with the Jazz in the offseason. If he ends up not working out for the Jazz or his level of play diminishes or if he becomes a liability in the offseason, the Jazz can walk away from this deal having risked very little.
But if Whiteside continues to play at the level he has in the early days of the 2021-22 season there are a few different directions this relationship could go.
What seems most likely is that Whiteside playing at a high level would raise his value and earn him a larger contract, a contract that would be difficult for the Jazz to justify paying to their backup center, especially considering that they are in line to be a repeating luxury tax team.
The Jazz could pay him, but again, that would cost them many multiples of his actual contract size once the luxury tax bill comes due.
Or the Jazz could offer Whiteside another minimum deal or slightly more, hoping that they could convince him to stay in Utah for a discounted price.
It’s an interesting and precarious position for all parties involved. Obviously Whiteside wants to play well, because if he doesn’t, he might not be able to get another deal in the NBA. The Jazz want him to play well because it increases their chances of success if they have a high-level center coming off the bench. But playing well could be the thing that leads to Whiteside leaving after just one year in Utah.
As with most things in this league, we’ll have to wait to see how it will all play out. But, in the meantime, it seems as if Whiteside has found a place where he feels appreciated, accepted and like he can make a difference.
By the end of this season, the Hassan Whiteside experience might end up having a totally different meaning.